Friday, 10 December 2010

Are interns mugs?

What is an intern, or an internship? Is it training? Work experience? A student placement? Volunteering?

I’ve been looking at this recently, and I confess to some confusion. Some internships seem to be paid; some not. But where they’re not, is this just a form of exploitation, substituting a free or cheap intern for a fully-salaried employee? Or is it a legitimate way to gain entry to a new organisation or industry?

Wiktionary takes a narrow view. It offers two definitions, the first of “a student who works in order to gain experience in their chosen field” and the second a more specific definition for medical students. takes a different view: “a person who works as an apprentice or trainee in an occupation or profession to gain practical experience, and sometimes also to satisfy legal or other requirements for being licensed or accepted professionally.” The Oxford English Dictionary goes for “a student or trainee who does a job to gain work experience or for a qualification”.

This question came up, for me, in the context of volunteering. It seems entirely reasonable to me that, just as people give their time freely to public, community or charitable organisations, to make a contribution and/or perhaps to gain useful knowledge or skills, and just as some professionals volunteer their time pro bono, so it may be that those seeking entry to a new career may offer their services free in return for the experience.

This is fine from the volunteer intern’s point of view, but if the organisation uses this as job substitution, perhaps even laying off paid staff to recruit unpaid interns, is this morally acceptable?

My half-formed opinion on this is that we need guidelines. A kind of code on internships. There’s a thorough review of what happens in various countries around the world at Wikipedia. And a provocative discussion forum at interns anonymous.

I’d welcome feedback. Is there a right way and a wrong way to organise and offer internships?


Peter Farr said...

I am not sure that there is a best way to appoint interns but having an interesting line of work certainly helps (see

Mad Sarah said...

I don't know about regs in the UK but there are actual guidelines in the US set forth by the Dept of Labor(which often don't seem to be followed) and they may be of interest

Ken said...

Thanks for the link, Mad Sarah. Peter - my most regular correspondent! - you may be interested (or may already know about) in the story in the news re the Home Office:

Brent Schlenker said...

It's also important to realize that just because an intern isn't paid does not mean that there isn't a "cost" to the company. Taking in someone that is very 'green' often requires coaching by a paid employee who is now taken away from there job.

It's more complicated than many people think.

Program Director, DevLearn 2011

robert.blevin said...

Sorry for the belated response. Hope you might find the CIPD's guidance on this subject interesting:

We're also working, along with a number of other organisations, with the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills on government endorsed guidance on the subject (which I believe will bear a striking resemblance to the CIPD's own guidance!) We expect this to be published in the near future.

Robert Blevin, CIPD

Ken said...

Thanks to everyone who commented on this, my most-discussed post of late, and perhaps my most-discussed non-e-learning post ever!

As Brent says, of course there are costs involved in hosting interns, even if the intern is unpaid. As my current full-time role is in volunteering, I'm interested in where these roles intersect with just being a volunteer (also unpaid, also incurring costs for the organisation). I've looked at the guidelines from Sarah and Rob with great interest.